The Miracle of Buying a Car for No Money Down

My wife and I bought a new car a month ago.

We didn’t pay anything down 1 and as we were driving away with the car after signing all the docs my wife just laughs and says “so all we have to do is sign a bunch of papers and we get to take a car?”

It was meant tongue and cheek but it made me stop and think about what had just happened.

How was it that a business would let us take one of their brand new cars off the lot, and all we had to do was put some ink on paper? 

How does that even make sense?


A short list of the modern miracles that had to happen:

  • We owe them money so they need recourse if we don’t pay: repossession
  • How much interest should they charge us?: credit rating system
  • Authenticate who we were: social security # and driver’s license
  • Collect payment quickly and easily: banking system with ACH payments
  • Cover the risk of something happening to the car while they’re still the owners: insurance
  • And the car had to get made in the 1st place! (But we’ll leave that out)

How does some ink on a paper make all of this happen? The rule of law.

At bottom we all trust that if you don’t fulfill your end of the bargain you’ll suffer the consequences, according to your contract enforced by the law.

And thanks to the rule of law, incentives can be aligned up the entire “modernity stack”, so each layer is happy to work with the layers above/below.

(Even better: we could do a similar deep dive on each category above. They’re all abstractions hiding their own modern miracles.)


One of my all time favorite movies, The Truman show, has this great quote from the creator, played by Ed Harris.

He’s taking Q&A from viewers and someone asks: “Why do you feel that Truman’s never come close to discovering the true nature of his world?”

To which he responds:

We accept the reality of the world with which we are presented

It’s worth taking a moment to appreciate that the defaults we’ve been born into are amazing, unprecedented, and worth fighting for.


  1. We went in planning on paying 100% cash but of course they offered a discount if we financed